Orchestras across the world have felt a responsibility to respond to current events, and The Cleveland Orchestra followed suit in dedicating the weekend’s concerts to the people of Ukraine and Northeast Ohio’s Ukrainian community. In addition, the exterior of Severance Hall was bathed in blue and yellow light. The repertoire performed — presented in reverse chronological order – suited the sentiment, as each work was composed during or in response to times of conflict.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Two British works comprised the first half, both of which The Cleveland Orchestra was integral in their genesis. Thomas Adès’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel has made waves in major opera houses. Based on the eponymous Luis Buñuel film from 1962, the source material stands as a firm critique of the Franco regime. The Cleveland Orchestra was one of several institutions to co-commission a symphony based upon the opera, recasting its themes in purely instrumental terms, and the weekend’s performances counted as the US premiere following its first hearing in Birmingham last August.

The four movement structure of the symphony had a satisfying cohesion, and gives the music ample life outside the opera house. Gripping material began the opening Entrances, and a haughty swagger was enhanced by the weight of the vast orchestra for which it was scored. Adès’ command of orchestral color yields a surrealist effect, an engrossing feast for the ears. The March featured heavy brass and unrelenting machine gunfire of the percussion. A doleful lyricism marked the Berceuse, its themes taken from one of the opera’s major duets. By far the longest movement, Waltzes saw fragments of a lilting waltz devolve into something much more sinister, not unlike Ravel’s La Valse – and it too had a sudden, punch to the gut ending.

Peter Otto and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

William Walton wrote his Violin Concerto in B minor for Jascha Heifetz, and its premiere took place on this same stage in 1939 under TCO’s second music director, Artur Rodziński. TCO would later record it with Zino Francescattii and George Szell, but despite the work’s significance to the ensemble, this was the first time it had appeared on a program in over three decades. Peter Otto has served as first associate concertmaster since 2007 and proved to be a choice soloist.

A languid, lyrical theme in the violin took flight over sympathetic accompaniment from his supportive colleagues. The music reached well into the violin’s upper bound, and Otto maintained a clear intonation and rich tone across the wide range. Contrasting material encouraged gains in velocity and urgency, giving the soloist a chance to show his virtuosic mettle. A tarantella central movement was vigorous and vivacious, scarcely allowing Otto a moment to rest. The lyrical/animated duality of the opening returned in the finale, highlighted by an accompanied cadenza.

A great warmth opened Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, gradually taking shape but in no apparent rush to coalesce, though I felt Franz Welser-Möst could have held back even more to heighten the sense of enigma. Broad dynamic contrasts were achieved, from whispering gestures in the strings to powerful climaxes resounding in the brass, and the conductor masterfully melded the variety of tempos as a unified whole. The slow movement was gentle and bucolic, the composer’s paean to the natural world of his Finnish homeland. In the finale, one was in awe of the grand sweep of the gleaming brass, famously inspired by a flock of swans taking flight, and Welser-Möst gave meaningful purpose to the striking silence that punctuates the closing sequence of chords. The conductor invited the principal horn front and center to take a bow for a well-deserved ovation.